When I first started doing CrossFit back in 2012, there was a quote written on the wall that read, “If I die, please note my time.” This quote speaks directly to the intensity and competitive atmosphere that was cultivated inside the walls of most CrossFit gyms in the early 2010’s. To be honest with you, as a former competitive athlete, this is one of the things that attracted me to CrossFit in the first place. The competitive nature of each workout pushed me to levels of intensity I had never felt before and helped me reach a level of fitness I didn’t even know was attainable. The problem was that this daily competitive approach was unsustainable. Most days my body felt beat down, my CNS was fried, and competing with others and myself took a toll both physically and mentally. It all finally came to a head when I injured my left shoulder attempting to once again PR my snatch leading up to the 2014 CrossFit Games Regionals.
So why am I sharing this story with you? Because I once believed that every day in the gym was a competition with not only others, but also myself. Every day I was trying to lift more and go faster than in previous workouts. I was competing and testing my limits everyday, rarely training, and never practicing. Thankfully I recovered from my shoulder injury with a little PT, but I learned a vital lesson that I continue to refine in my own training and apply in training others. That lesson is the important difference between practice, training, and competition. In this article I’m going to outline the difference between the three, give my guidelines for how you should spend your time in the gym, and then you can make an honest assessment of how your training lines up.
“Practice? We talkin ‘bout practice?” (in my best Allen Iverson impersonation). While practice typically doesn’t get a lot of love, it is arguably the most important part of your workouts. Practice is typically done at a very low heart rate and light loads performed with intense mental focus. Practice involves more of a neurological adaptation than a physical one. For example, power clean technique with an empty bar. You know you can lift the bar, but what you are doing is improving your technique and movement patterns so that you eventually will be able to lift more weight down the road. Practice shouldn’t feel like a workout, but instead is focused on improving movements patterns and learning new skills and techniques which can be utilized in workouts in the future. Practice should make up 15% of your workout time for beginners and even more for people who have built prerequisite strength and are attempting to learn higher level skills like muscle ups, rope climbs, heavy snatch etc.
Training is where the majority of people should spend their time in the gym. Training is typically what you think of when you think of most of your workouts in the gym. Heart rate is elevated, load begins to increase on weightlifting movements, but still technique and movement patterns are near perfect. If we ever begin to cross the line and movement quality suffers, we are quick to slow down or reduce load to make sure we are staying within our ability. Training is truly where fitness is improved by hitting the intended stimulus of the day through proper movement patterns, correct loading, movement selection, and relative intensity. Training should make up 75% of your time in the gym and is really where you improve strength, aerobic capacity, and overall fitness.
The last piece of the puzzle is testing (or at Townie we call it assessing). To know if any fitness program is working you must have some measuring stick to determine the effectiveness of the program. At Townie we use 15 different assessments to regularly and accurately measure our progress and spot areas for improvement. The key is that we only assess progress a few times per month. These days are a completely different mindset than on regular training or practice days, and are all about giving 100% effort. This may be a max lift to test the effectiveness of our recent deadlift cycle, or a max effort 1 mile run to level up your running. The point is that these rare assessment/competition days are the days for you to leave it all out on the floor. Lifts are at 100%+ of your 1RM and heart rate is near max. It’s also important to note that the adaptation that occurs on assessment days is minimal to none, meaning you aren’t improving your fitness when you assess or compete, you’re simply testing the effectiveness of the accumulation of your hard work in training. Assessing and competing should make up about 10% or less of your overall training and at Townie is only reserved for 2-3 workouts per month.
In summary, programming is important to make sure athletes have the proper balance of practice, training, and assessing/competition in their workouts, but it’s equally important for the athlete to have the proper mindset when approaching different types of workouts. If you come into the gym each day with the mindset of going 100% percent and trying to one up yourself or others, then you likely will end up injured and burnt out. Instead, approach most of your workouts with a training mindset focused on improving strength, movement quality, and aerobic capacity through relative intensity and hitting the intended stimulus of the day’s workout. Reserve intense efforts and maximal loads for the rare days when we are assessing progress and attempting to level up and measure the effectiveness of our training and your consistency in the gym. Finally, don’t forget to practice skill movements like double unders, light barbell technique, and high skill gymnastics at a low heart rate and with 100% focus. If you put all of these ingredients together in the right quantities you’ll end up with the perfect recipe to see consistent progress and have more fun in the gym.